Collection Management: The Other DH Tool

November 16, 2011

Greetings from Western Massachusetts!

I am please to begin blogging here following Snowmageddon 2011!

Recently, I read an excellent blog post about what skills are needed for the digital humanities. I was grateful to come across this as I am in the process of creating a syllabi for an undergraduate digital humanities methods class. One would expect burgeoning digital humanists to be able to be able to do ‘hands on’ projects, ‘write for all different contexts-online, blogging, and formal’ and have ‘software development methodologies.’ But there are other skills that might not be obvious to folks outside DH like ‘openness,’ ‘attitude-experiment and play,’ and ‘being prepared to fail.’ These ideas percolated in my mind when I travelled to Dartmouth on 15 October to chair a panel called, ‘Don’t Mind the Gap: Archivists, Librarians, and Faculty Teaching Together.’

The session featured the case studies from Archives and Special Collections at Mount Holyoke College and Harvard University’s Houghton Library. Librarians spoke about classroom exercises they conducted and touted new outreach strategies, all of were fantastic. Once  James Capobianco began talk about digital projects, my brain clicked into DH MODE. He described various digitization projects and initiatives used in classroom experiences for undergraduates, a target outreach population for Houghton.

For our purposes, the most useful tool Capobianco described was Aeon, a circulation system for special collections and archives. Aeon is a remarkable tool for managing patron registration, but it is also a tool researchers can use to remotely request collections for use in reading rooms bypassing paper call slips, carbon copies, and  long email exchanges with reference staffs to request materials. The Beinecke Library at Yale University recently bid farewell to paper call sips. The Houghton Library was an early adopter and managed to think beyond the traditional boundaries of  the system’s capabilities and empower students, faculty, and outside researchers. Aeon allows them to discover hidden collections and readily use materials in research and teaching. With the Houghton’s implementation of Aeon, these constituencies are invited to participate in selection and in some cases as the curators of their classes.

I firmly believe librarians, archivists, and curators are essential collaborators for the Digital Humanities. We can provide access and help practitioners discover new and underused collections that can be given new life in the digital context. And that’s exactly what Houghton is doing with their collections and staff. Capobianco talked extensively about how students really enjoyed engaging with the process of making selections for classes, taking ownership of the process, exactly the type of competencies described in the opening blog post.

Capobianco also described how curators and librarians at the Houghton Library were planning to use Aeon to solicit ideas about collections to digitize. This kind of patron driven engagement challenges the content versus containers binary that libraries struggle with as library as concept develops.

The ethos of our session is that faculty, librarians, and archivists are powerful collaborators in our students’ education. Libraries and archives can act as  laboratories for our students to experiment with collections as the raw material for digital projects, for exhibitions, and to practice digital humanities skills. Don’t mind the gap as we all work together to forge new paths in digital humanities and higher education at large.

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